Hell's Angels on Trial: Tales of Drugs & Death

How the law finally caught up to the infamous motorcycle gang and its president

Members of the Hells Angels gang, acting as both security and hoodlums, jump the stage with Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane at the Altamont Speedway outside of Livermore, California on December 6th, 1969. Credit: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Whispering Bill Pifer is dying. The cancer growing in his throat has now all but choked off his raspy voice. A lip reader stood beside him and interpreted his words to the courtroom. They came slow and measured, the damning silent words of a dying Hell's Angel. "

I understand I would have complete immunity," Pifer's lips said. "I won't testify without it. The time I have left, I want to spend on the street."

Sonny Barger, 33-year-old president of the Hell's Angels, supposedly talked too much to Whispering Bill while they were both in the Alameda County Jail in Oakland, California. The cold-eyed Barger has a reputation as a braggart, and this time, according to police, something he and Whispering Bill talked about led them to the hilly grasslands near Ukiah in far northern California, where police found three bodies stuffed into abandoned wells on a 153-acre ranch owned by the Angels. Big Tom Shull, 24, and Charles Baker, 30, had both been strangled. Their bodies had been in the wells for about a year. A young woman who is still unidentified was found in the other well. About six months ago, somebody shot her in the head.

If it had been a year ago, or only a few months, Pifer would have kept it quiet according to the code that binds all Angels. Or if it had been out on the streets, in some beer-stale bar in Oakland or around some trash-cluttered campsite at the end of a late summer run. But Whispering Bill knew he was dying. He didn't want it to be there in the antiseptic stink of the Alameda County Jail. So, according to police, he offered his information on the Angels' burial ground in return for some last days of freedom.

When the cops went to the ranch, they found George "Baby Huey" Wethern, bearded, 260-pound resident and, with his wife Helen, ostensible owner of the ranch. From what Pifer had told them, the police knew enough already. The cocaine and weapons they would find on the ranch would be enough to end for years Wethern's retreat into the placid countryside, and the bodies could make Baby Huey liable for a murder charge. He looked tired, whipped by it, and he agreed to tell everything he knew in return for immunity from prosecution.

The code of silence was cracking. Significantly, it was coming apart within a week after the release of the state attorney general's report that concluded the Hell's Angels are a key element in organized crime in California. Among other things, the report said that U.S. Customs agents estimate the Angels have shipped more than $31 million in narcotics from the West Coast to the East Coast alone in the last three years.

"This is the beginning of the end of the Hell's Angels," Mendocino County District Attorney Duncan James said after winning immunity for Baby Huey.

Ralph Hubert Barger has been president of the Oakland Hell's Angels since 1957 and undisputed chieftain of the club's chapters in California and elsewhere nearly as long. He has a sense of power like woven, twisted strands of steel cable. His hair falls back in a peak off his high forehead and breaks over in light piles of curls to his shoulders, joining around his ears to the full, neatly trimmed beard, so that he looks the part of some ancient helmeted horseman — or perhaps the image of Buffalo Bill, which he once said he preferred.

Barger and his people are a throbbing horde, half vulgar barbarians, half fascinating visages of wild, unshackled glory. People are afraid of them, but they are lured to watch them, to come as close as they dare to the thrill of unpredictable violence which waits like the evil, choking sound of an idling Harley 74.

It was probably something like that for Big Tom Shull and Charley Baker as they loaded up in Charley's beat-up '57 pickup in the fall of 1971 and rambled west out of Georgia headed for California, where the legends of Free Wheelin' Frank and Frenchy from Berdoo were born and nourished while Big Tom and Charley were still learning to ride a two-wheeler.

Big Tom had a tangle of red beard and hair that sharpened up and slightly aged his handsome boyish face. He was a filled-out six-foot dude with 200 pounds resting easy in a dangerous-looking build. He had a swastika earring and a knife slung from his chain belt and he liked his action mean. And for all of that, he looked as green as bespectacled, short-haired and skinny Charley Baker as they pulled into dusty farm-fed Stockton.

Back in Augusta, Charley had been a mechanic for police department motorcycles. Big Tom had a wife he divorced to make the move, and they both had accents thick enough to single them out as strangers anywhere north of Louisville. But sooner or later, people who love bikes find each other no matter where they are. Shull and Baker were soon hanging out with the French Camp Boys, a motorcycle club in the Stockton area that, like countless others in California, is on the far periphery of notorious "outlaw" groups like the Angels and the Hessians and the Gypsy Jokers. It might have been enough for good-natured Charley Baker. The French Camp Boys were joining their bikes in races and meets all over northern California, sometimes just blasting off on their own, punching down that white line full back and blazing around cars at up to 120 miles an hour on the straights. After a time, Charley moved on down to Rodeo on San Pablo Bay, found himself a woman and took a job in a custom motorcycle shop. He kept up his interest in the French Camp Boys, but he was settling in a lot faster than his restless partner from Augusta.

For Big Tom Shull, being on a bike was more than a ride, it was a whole skull-shaking way of life. So far, Big Tom was just an imitation of it, a compendium of all the mad defiant movies he'd seen and the teeth-smashing, passion-thick stories he'd heard and read about it. It didn't matter whether the stories were all true, he admired the way he believed it to be, and he wanted a piece of it.

"Tom wanted to graduate up to the Angels," one of his former friends in Stockton remembered, "that was one of his ambitions."

"I've said it before and I'll say it again," Sonny Barger had told an interviewer. "I'm gonna live in the world I want to live in. You people who run things ain't got nothin' to be proud of, you've left things in one hell of a mess."

Sonny Barger got quoted more than any other Angel, which still wasn't much. The Angels never went around telling people what they were like inside or what their motives were; anything that wasn't obvious was none of your fucking business. But once in a while, there were at least clues to where they were coming from. Back in 1966, for example, Sonny led a herd of Angels into the middle of an antiwar march in Oakland. Several of the marchers were hurt. The country has enough "peace creeps," Sonny said, and a couple months later he sent a letter to Washington offering to volunteer his men as "gorillas" in Vietnam. He was turned down; the country was too busy drafting "peace creeps" to take on outlaw bikers best known for their police records.

Maybe Big Tom didn't know it, but things had changed a good deal since those days when the Angels saw themselves in a brief moment as heroic storm troopers for a country purging itself of sissies. For their side of it, people in the peace movement saw little sense in fighting men of roughly their own age who were held in at least as much ill repute by the authorities as they were. Down deep, the roots of alienation and the desire for independent lifestyle were similar, maybe even the same. In at least two areas, music and marijuana, the Angels and their freestyle contemporaries had nearly identical tastes. Slowly, the Angels expanded from just being bikers to counterculture businessmen. Even the disaster at Altamont in 1969 didn't part the crude alliance entirely, because for all their brutal moods, the Angels by then had allegedly found themselves a profitable place in the drug scene. "

We began to see them as a lot more than just plain hell-raisers," said Charles Casey, Assistant Director of the Investigative Services Branch of the California Department of Justice. "Their fluid movement made them pretty useful to some people, particularly in narcotics importation and the theft of weapons and explosives.

"A lot of these guys have moved out of the minor leagues into the major leagues."

In November of this year, the state Justice Department released its annual report on organized crime. The single most frequently mentioned organization in the report was not the Mafia or the Cosa Nostra or some syndicate, it was the Hell's Angels.

"The most active gang appears to be the Hell's Angels followed by the Hessians [a southern California outlaw biker club]," the report said. "The Hell's Angels are no longer merely a gang of loosely organized bikers, but are rapidly becoming large-scale organized-crime operators. Motorcycle gang members are active in the purchase of land. They make investments in legitimate businesses, and motorcycle gangs now possess sophisticated electronic devices to intercept police communications. They are extremely mobile, thus benefiting from a basic law enforcement weakness, jurisdictional fragmentation. Members of outlaw motorcycle gangs have frequently been associated with major organized-crime figures in the state."

Not only were they running dope, particularly cocaine, up and down the coast, the report suggested, but Angels were also actively into gun dealing.

"I wouldn't call them political activists," Casey said in one of his veiled statements, "but we're pretty sure they saw political activism as a means of profit."

Tom Shull had moved in with another biker in an apartment in the San Joaquin Valley town of Manteca, but his real aim was still north and west, to the urban jam of the San Francisco Bay Area the Angels called their own.

"One day in late December or January Big Tom just didn't come back," said his roommate, Larry McCurdy. "I thought something seemed funny. I figured they got into some trouble or something in the Bay Area."

Big Tom had kicked his yellow and black hog into sense, cleared the pipes and taken off for somewhere around San Francisco, picking up his old Augusta buddy, Charley Baker, along the way. In February, Big Tom's mother reported her son missing. After a time, police in Georgia told her that California authorities believed he had been killed and dumped in San Francisco Bay. They didn't know how, why or when.

Nobody is quite sure how Big Tom got to know the Angels, but Whispering Bill Pifer told police Shull had his last run-in with them at a party in a Richmond Angel's pad.

The Angels had given Big Tom and Charley cups of coffee spiked with LSD, Pifer said, and Big Tom was freaking out, his mind stumbling over violent fantasies. Charley "just sat there," Pifer said, quiet and out-of-place as usual. According to Pifer, some of the Angels began playing games with Big Tom then, telling him they thought Baker was a narc. Shull exploded, tossing whistling punches in all directions. The Angels wrestled with him, threw him down and tried to hold him, but Big Tom was strong. There was blood on the floor and wall, but Shull kept struggling and screaming until at last, Pifer said, the Angels succeeded in hog-tying him, neck to feet, and tossing him into a bedroom. Ten minutes later when somebody checked on him, Big Tom was dead.

"Kill him. We can't have a witness," Pifer quoted one of the Angels as saying about quiet Charley Baker. An Angel choked Charley with his hands first, then a belt and finally with a rope knotted around a stick, Pifer said. "This guy won't die," Pifer quoted the killer as complaining.

It was about to be a bad year for the Angels, particularly for Sonny Barger. Sonny had been an "outlaw" for as long as anybody still on a bike. He'd had his encounters with the police and the courts, but he had a reputation for always landing on his feet. He had a rap sheet that went back to 1963 when he was arrested for possession of marijuana, but despite another bust on the same charge in 1964 and two for assault with a deadly weapon in 1965 and '66, he'd never done more than six months behind bars and had not been convicted of a felony. The heaviest charges had come in June 1970, when authorities raided his posh home up in the Oakland hills at the unlikely address of 9508 Golf Links Road.

A total of 23 cops, most of them state and federal narcs, participated in the raid. It was clear they were looking for drugs, but what they found was Sonny and Sharon Gruhlae, a pretty unemployed model who had once been crowned "Maid of Livermore" in a beauty contest. The big quantities of dope that authorities expected were simply not there, so police held Barger on point-stretching charges of being an ex-felon in possession of guns. The agents were still at his house when Donald Howorth, overbuilt Hollywood muscleman who was "Mr. America" of 1967, came strolling up the walk carrying a briefcase. The cops who grabbed him said the briefcase contained 17 ounces of cocaine and 30 ounces of heroin. With their usual flamboyance, the narcs estimated its retail worth at over $300,000 — enough, they said, to supply 30,000 "addicts." To the gun charges against Sonny were added charges of dope dealing, but the authorities could not make either stick. Howorth drew a long prison stretch, but after more than a year of legal action, Sonny wound up with a 90-day jail sentence for getting mad at his attorney and walking out of one court session. Even that is still pending.

In January of this year, Sonny was nabbed again, and again in bizarre circumstances. Two park rangers working in the hills that crest in wilderness behind Oakland thought they had themselves some deer poachers when they spotted a big Pontiac so weighted down by something in the trunk that sparks spread out of the rear end when they hit a bump. Behind the Pontiac, a lighter-loaded Cadillac was trailing at normal speed. The rangers hit the red lights and siren, but the first car switched off its lights and sped off, leaving the Cadillac behind. After a brief chase, the Pontiac missed a curve and struck an embankment. The Rangers bailed out, guns drawn, but the driver of the Pontiac jammed the car in reverse and headed it right at them. In the burst of shots that followed, one tire was shot out. The Pontiac took off again, only to smash into a tree a few blocks away. Its occupants fled into the brush. When the Rangers finally caught up with the car, they noticed muffled sounds coming from the trunk. Inside, instead of poached deer, were two men, both bound and gagged and showing the effects of a beating. As chance would have it, meantime, another Ranger farther down the road had spotted a Cadillac traveling at high speed. He gave chase, noting over the next wild four miles that objects were being thrown from the car. When the Cadillac was finally stopped by other converging police, the occupants, Sonny Barger and two other Angels, were arrested. Back along the route of the chase, police said, they found four handguns, a shotgun, some surgical gloves and a belt with an ammunition pouch and a silver buckle engraved with the words, SONNY BARGER JR., 1957-67 PRESIDENT, HELL'S ANGELS, OAKLAND.

The two men in the truck later insisted to police that it had merely been an initiation hazing, not a kidnapping. Authorities thought differently. Their "victimless" case of kidnapping is still pending. Barger was released on $20,000 bail.

But the tangle of alleged Angel criminal activity grew the most complex in May. Just before noon on an otherwise placid Sunday, May 21st, Oakland fire units responded to reports of a blaze in a $50,000 frame house on Mountain Boulevard in the Oakland hills. It was not as bad as had been expected. The fire had e most of its damage in the rear kitchen of the home; it was smoky, but easily managed. Still, it did not take an arson expert to recognize that the fire was not the outcome of an overdone roast. Not only the kitchen, but the entire house, reeked of gasoline; there was even an empty can of it still in the living room. The firemen quickly searched the house. Upstairs, lying in the bathtub with his head resting on a fuel-soaked rag was the still neatly dressed but gas-drenched body of Severo Winston Agero, 29, a meek-looking little guy with a .32 bullet in the back of his head who turned out to be a cocaine and smack wholesaler from McAllen, Texas.

Sunday just got worse after that. That evening, two women who used to stop by once or twice a week to clean house for Gary Kemp, 29, a small-time truck driver who lived an easy, if often sloppy, bachelor life, came walking up to Kemp's house in the nether region between Oakland and San Leandro known as "Okie Hill." Nobody was home, so the women went across the street to where Gary's friend and employer in the two-man dirt-hauling trucking firm, Richard Ivaldi, made his home. The stereo was playing, a shower was running; the place was a bigger mess than usual and on the living room floor was Gary Kemp, dead from bullets in his head and back. Police who arrived within minutes found Patrick Kelly Smith's nude body in the shower stall, two bullets in his head, and Willard Thomas' body in another bathroom, a bullet in his head. The slugs in Kemp matched that of the .32 round that killed Severo Agero. But it was even easier than that; Polaroid pictures found in Kemp's house turned out to be photos of Smith and Agero in the fire-scarred house on Mountain Boulevard.

Three days later, Richard Ivaldi, a barrel-faced and beefy 26-year-old with receding hair that pulls back his forehead and crowds into an oily jam along his collar, walked into an Alameda County Sheriff's Department substation and said the Angels did it.

Ivaldi, who had lived in the body-strewn house with Thomas, began unfolding a tortuously complicated story that fingered his hired driver, Kemp, as a cocaine dealer and Agero as a courier who had burned Kemp once but was to make it good with a $90,000 shipment stuffed in a blue plastic suitcase Agero brought with him from Texas on his last trip, May 19th. It was good stuff, Ivaldi said, good enough so that Sergey Walton, 27, cold-staring Angel compatriot of Sonny Barger, bought $10,000 worth of it that Saturday night in a deal arranged at the "front" house on Mountain Boulevard.

Ivaldi claimed to be only an innocent witness placed there by circumstance of having some late friends. He knew Walton and Smith, 32, another Angel, from chance meetings in bars and at Kemp's house, Ivaldi claimed. He had never seen Sonny Barger, he said, until the Angel's president showed up at the Mountain Boulevard house at 3 a.m. Sunday (after the buy had been made) wearing a dark suit, a wig and eyeglasses, and packing a weird-looking pistol in his belt with something attached to the muzzle that Ivaldi thought might be a silencer.

Agero was asleep on the couch, according to Ivaldi, when Barger, Walton, Smith and "Oakland Gary" Popkin, along with Walton's wife, Anita, walked into the house. Ivaldi said Kemp and he were drinking beer and talking when the Angels came back and that he, Kemp and Anita Walton were ordered into another room. They heard a muffled shot, and Ivaldi claims he heard someone say, "That's quiet for a .32." Then Barger let them out of the room and ordered the men to carry the body upstairs. According to Ivaldi, other Angels arrived later with cans of gasoline and set about dousing the house. Fumes from the kitchen pilot light ignited the gas prematurely, he said, and Barger himself ordered "Everybody out." After that, according to Ivaldi, they all went to Barger's house.

So how come Kemp winds up dead in Ivaldi's house? Ivaldi's story goes that the remaining $80,000 in coke had been taken there by Patrick Smith and Willard Thomas after the Angels made their buy. Somebody may have concluded it was a burn, or maybe the Angels had intentions of taking it all — cheap. But Ivaldi constructs a thick plot. According to him, a 27-year-old mother of three named Karen Long had come to Kemp a couple of weeks before looking to buy some dope. Kemp suspected she was a narc, Ivaldi said, so he and Smith killed her and left her body in the trunk of a car parked on an Oakland street. Police found her body where Ivaldi suggested. She had been dead at least five days, and, authorities advised, she had been a "friend" of the Hell's Angels.

Police promptly arrested Barger and the other Angels. How Ivaldi survived to tell his tale, and how much of it is true is still in doubt, but this time Sonny Barger was up on a murder charge, denied bail, claiming to be a pauper after expenses from the previous cases, and, worst of all, put in a cell with Whispering Bill Pifer.

Even though only three bodies were found at the Wethern ranch, authorities searched for more than a week before giving up the effort. Somewhere, they insisted, the bodies of at least 12 more Angel victims are hidden.

One reason Sonny Barger is now a legal pauper may be that the Angels can't use the 153 acres near Ukiah as collateral any longer. It was purchased for $30,000 in cash in 1969. Baby Huey Wethern and his wife are the ostensible owners, but it seems unlikely the former Oakland lather could have put together that kind of cash money. Police claimed the property was used as a burial ground because of a debt Wethern owed William "Zorro" Mitten. Several years ago, they said, Wethern was so stoned out of his mind at a party that he shot and wounded Zorro. You never pay off a debt like that to the Angels.

Be that as it may, Baby Huey had a reputation of being down on drugs in recent years since he has been living with his wife and two kids out in the Mendocino countryside. One reason, of course, might be that the ranch, according to state investigators, was used by the Angels as a storage dump for coke and other drugs.

Baby Huey was quickly granted immunity against all charges in return for pointing out the bodies on his ranch. He looked scared all the time, especially since his name was passed around freely by the press, but investigators in Mendocino County carefully reassured him. He was safe, they said, so safe, in fact, that they allowed him to share a cell in the county jail with his wife.

It was Election Day, November 7th. Wethern, looking glum, but not much worse than he had been since the bust, asked his wife Helen for a couple of pencils so he could write some letters.

She handed them to him and Baby Huey stabbed them both into his eyes with one violent motion.

Helen began to scream hysterically. Wethern blindly groped for her until he found her throat. He was choking her, maybe only trying to keep her quiet, when the jailers rushed in and separated them.

George Wethern will see again. Presumably he will testify at the trial of four Angels currently being held and four others being sought all the way to the East Coast in the killings of Big Tom Shull and Charley Baker.

Early in the trial, he's expected to be asked about the picture of Sonny Barger that police found in his ranch house.

Sonny was pushing the movie Hell's Angels on Wheels, which starred him and some 200 other Angels, back in 1967 when an interviewer asked him about incidents, some embellished and fabricated, others real enough, involving the Angels.

"If we did it, we did it and if you don't like it go somewhere else because we might do it again," Sonny said.

His wife, Elise, had died earlier that year, and maybe insensitively, the interviewer asked about that, too.

"You don't have to be sorry," the Angel president replied. "That's one thing I'm used to is people dying."